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Farewell Armadillo

Our Engage Volunteer, Gemma, is reflecting on one of the objects she has enjoyed working with over the last few months.

One thing working on the Engage table has shown me time and time again is that there is always more than one way of looking at things.

As of 29 April there have been new objects to handle out in the Museum at the trolley next to the Natural History Gallery. While I am really looking forward to working with them, I’ll be sad to see the back of the things we have been using for the last couple of months.

All the most recent batch of items had bags of personality.

The python skin has been a real winner. Kids and adults alike never seem to tire of unrolling its massive 4m length - so I’m sure it will be back! The duiker has been stroked and petted as we’ve cooed over the idea of tiny antelopes the size of bunny rabbits.

The wonky turtle has kept us guessing about the life it led before ending up at the Horniman and, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how keen you are to meet one), I never did come across a single visitor who had seen a longhorn beetle in the UK.

There was also an armadillo carapace.

The handling has darkened it a bit, but it was not particularly well preserved in the first place having been badly bent and stuffed with bits of newspaper. The old newspaper kept the Engage team entertained as it has fallen out piece by piece providing snippets of news about a driving ban, the number 1870 and some sort of warning about German girls (I have no idea what they are alleged to have done).

The carapace has great links to the rest of the Horniman. Armadillos have traditionally been used in the Andes to make music. With its lumps and ridges, I’d pictured something like a guiro – a percussion instrument which you would rub with a stick or brush, but apparently it’s usually made into a stringed instrument called a charango. Sort of like a lute.

As a lovely example of animal adaption, it makes a good introduction to The Robot Zoo exhibition. There are also a couple of armadillos in the Natural History Gallery, but actually, one of those is not all it seems…

One of the things the Engage staff were told about armadillos is that only the three banded armadillo can curl completely into a ball. However, at the far end of the Natural History Gallery, there is another armadillo carapace. It’s a nine banded armadillo like the one on the trolley. It is very much curled into a ball.

According to the Curator, this may have been the work of an over-enthusiastic Victorian and is not a fully accurate reflection of the abilities of nine banded armadillos. Then again, when most of your audience wouldn’t have seen an armadillo in action, it gets the point across that they are bendy when they need to defend themselves and is no more misleading than our much loved (but very overstuffed) walrus.

As anyone who was around in the 1990s will tell you, the armadillo has links to the café too. Anyone for a certain smooth on the outside and crunchy in the middle chocolate snack? Or you can just eat it. I am told it tastes like pork.

So goodbye to our lovely, intriguing armadillo with all its great uses and links.

Or, as one American visitor said to me lately, "yuck, it’s just road kill."

A look back on Volunteering

Volunteer Andressa looks back on her time spent at the Horniman, sparking curiousity.

  • Volunteer cross-pollination with The Hive, Sandra Bogdanova
    , Sandra Bogdanova

After completing a year of volunteering at Horniman Museum and Gardens and starting a new chapter of my life, I thought it would be a good time to share my wonderful experience as an Engage Volunteer.

Looking back, I still can't believe that time has passed so quickly. I still remember the first time I visited the Horniman at the beginning of 2016, and how much I loved the African galleries and the Horniman's vibe – full of families and friendly faces. In fact, I loved it so much that by the time I got home, I had visited the website and seen that they were recruiting for new volunteers. It didn't take me more than a few minutes looking at the programme to decide that I wanted to be part of it!

At the time, I was finishing my masters in Museum Studies and was looking for opportunities to get involved but also to develop my skills. Having migrated to the UK from Brazil, I wanted to develop confidence speaking to the public in my second language, while also building practical experience. Fortunately, volunteering at Horniman has not only allowed me to gain confidence but also to learn a lot about the collection – how to handle it and engage people – plus a range of exclusive opportunities such as training, talks with Curators and the Conservation Team, Horniman newsletters and a team-building trip to Kew Gardens! 

Besides all the good things mentioned above, what really made the difference in my volunteering was how friendly and welcoming the Horniman was. From my very first day as a volunteer, I felt part of the team and I was lucky enough to meet wonderful people every Wednesday - my usual volunteering day - and make new friends!

I would definitely recommend volunteering at Horniman Museum and Gardens to anyone interested in museums and their work. I shall greatly miss my time as a volunteer!

Andressa's post was originally published on her own blog: Fish & Chips com farofa.

About the Art: Daksha Patel

We spoke to Daksha Patel about her new artwork Pani, which you can see for free in the Natural History Gallery.

  • About the Art: Daksha Patel, Artist Daksha Patel speaking at the opening her exhibition Pani
    Artist Daksha Patel speaking at the opening her exhibition Pani

What was the inspiration behind Pani?

The work is about water and our relationship with it. A significant part of the human body is comprised of water, and it is central to all ecosystems. Water is a symbol of purification in many South Asian cultures, and yet it is also contaminated and a source of pollution. Water moves across boundaries - geographical, political, economic and cultural - it is a highly contested resource.

Whilst looking at maps of ecosystems across South Asia, I began thinking about how water moves across boundaries - geographical, political, economic and cultural - and how it is a shared, and consequently a highly contested resource.

This simple molecule - H2O - is central to our biological selves and permeates ecosystems. It also permeates culture, and is implicated in all kinds of cultural and religious practices; for instance the concept of holy water is found in many different cultures.

In South Asian cultures, water is often a symbol of purification through the ritual act of cleansing the body. And yet water is also routinely contaminated and polluted causing immense harm to humans and to ecosystems.

The complex relationship that we have with water was the starting point for the work.

  • About the Art: Daksha Patel, Planning Pani
    Planning Pani

How did the Horniman influence Pani?

The Horniman is a really interesting Museum because it has such a diverse range of collections. As part of my research for this project, I visited the museum stores and looked at collections of South Asian water vessels and textiles. The shapes of the water pots, and the colours and patterns upon the textiles have all influenced the final work.

But also, the way in which the Museum becomes wonderfully animated as groups of school children move through it has influenced how I think about the work. I’m interested in how they will engage with it as they move through the space.

How did Pani develop from your initial thoughts to the display in the Natural History Gallery?

Ideas evolved and changed from my original proposal as I started testing and exploring materials.

I had initially imagined the map would be printed upon paper; the idea of printing it upon cloth and of using embroidery as a way of drawing into the map developed over time. This was influenced by the collections and a desire to make links between ecosystems and the cultures of the region.

Similarly I had originally planned upon making drawings with slip (a mixture of clay and water) upon ceramic water pots. I have used slip as a drawing material in past projects and was keen to develop this further. As I was researching the impact of water pollution upon the human body (for instance high levels of arsenic in water causes rashes and blisters upon the skin), I started to think about the pots as bodies. The idea of damaging the pots by cracking/distorting their surface evolved from that.

  • About the Art: Daksha Patel, Making the pots
    Making the pots

What do you want people to think about when they see Pani?

The artwork makes connections between different things, for instance between ecosystems, water pollution and cultural traditions, or handmade crafts practices and twenty first century digital mapping technologies, or mapping symbols, drawing and embroidery.

The central theme of water is addressed indirectly - I wanted to allow space for the imagination to make its own connections. Once a piece of artwork is completed and moves into the public realm outside the artist’s studio, it takes on its own life and meanings. Everyone brings their own interpretations; has their own way of looking at it.

  • About the Art: Daksha Patel, A close up of the map appearing in Pani
    A close up of the map appearing in Pani

You can see Pani in the Natural History Gallery from Saturday 20 May to Sunday 26 November 2017.  Entry to the Gallery is free.

The Horniman is grateful to Roseberys Fine Art Auctioneers for their generous support of this display.


Spring Welly Walk

This spring, a group of young explorers and their families walked the length of the Horniman Nature Trail.

They were accompanied by nature guide Shayna Soong and armed with binoculars and a Signs of Spring spotter sheet.

Only one of the families had visited the trail before, so this was a real walk on the wild side for most of the group.

The Horniman Nature Trail lies in an area that once formed part of the so-called Great North Wood. Other fragments of this wood are found in this area at One Tree Hill and Sydenham Hill Woods.

In 1865 a railway line was built to bring visitors to Crystal Palace. This was the London, Chatham and Dover line. Almost all trees and vegetation were cleared to make the railway. A railway bridge used to cross London Road here to the Lordship Lane station.

On our walk, we looked for historical clues and relics that remind us of its history as a railway line, such as the bumpy clinker underfoot.

We also looked for signs of spring. The challenge was to keep an eye out for blossom, flowers, birds and pond life and fill out a spotter sheet. Once the sheet had been filled out, they could shout out BINGO (but not too loud as to disturb the wildlife!).

We used a parabolic microphone to listen to birdsong which brought the lively chirping and tweeting so much closer.

A male newt from the pond was met with shrieks of delight as it showed off its breeding spots and crests. We also looked at the bat boxes and bird boxes along the route.

What will the Summer Welly Walk bring?  Come along on Saturday 8th July to find out!

We also have two exciting Bat Walks coming up, one for families on the 11 August and one for adults on the 18 August. Come with us to explore these exciting creatures. 

Friends of the walrus

Visitor Host Vicky King spends a lot of time with the big guy. She gives us her unique insights on what people think of our walrus.

Working at the Horniman as a Visitor Host, I see countless children walk into the Natural History Gallery - eyes wide and transfixed while their jaw is ajar, one arm stretched out pointing, amazed and slowly saying, “Wallllrus!”

The walrus is everyone’s favourite celebrity at the Horniman, including mine. Growing up visiting the Horniman means it has a special place in my heart. Since working here and finding out more about the collections my appreciation for the Horniman has increased.

What is it about the walrus that makes it so loveable? It’s hardly something cute and familiar like a cat or dog. I’ve asked some of the visitors why they like the walrus to find out.

“Because it’s fat!” shouted one little boy on a school trip, “He was here for a long, long time.”

“When I was little I was really scared of the walrus,” a little girl told me and also proudly said how she wasn’t scared anymore and liked him now.

Regular families to the Horniman always come to say hello to the walrus, but it’s not only children that are fond of him.

“I love that story that the Victorians over stuffed him,” a lady told me.

“I guess it’s that all the other animals are real representations of what they are but the walrus is just funny looking because it’s too big. Also walruses look a bit funny with their tusks,” one of our volunteers said while we chatted about the Museum.

This seems to be a popular theme adults like. I also love that one of our most popular exhibits is so popular because it's not actually correct.

A question we get asked a lot in the Natural History Gallery about everything is, “Is it real?”

Visitors particularly ask this about the walrus. People know it’s wrong but they can't always put their finger on why. When told the story of it being over stretched (because the people who stuffed it didn’t know what a walrus looked like) always gets a positive reaction.

For me one thing that really made me love the walrus was a story Jo Hatton our Keeper of Natural History told us while she gave a tour of the Gallery.

The walrus wasn’t always the focal point of the Natural History Gallery. You can see in photos of the museum years ago that we had much more larger animals on display including a polar bear.

However, the larger animals were sold to a dealers in Deptford in 1948 who, in turn, sold them on to a photography studio near the Kursaal in Southend-on-Sea as amusements for people to have their photos taken with. The walrus was spared this fate probably because he was so heavy and funny looking. They most likely ran out of room in their truck and decided to leave the walrus behind.

I think this story is so sweet, like The Ugly Duckling, but in the walrus' story he didn’t turn into a beautiful swan, people just learned to love him for being funny looking.

Why do you love the walrus?

Tell us online using #Horniman.

How to make an origami walrus

Coco Sato shows us how to recreate our star Natural History specimen in paper form. 

We recently had origami artist, Coco Sato, come into the Museum for one of our Big Wednesday events. 

Coco made some amazing giant origami animals with our visitors and had a pop-up installation in our Music Gallery. 

As an added extra for us, Coco showed us how to make an origami walrus, in honour of the big man himself.

It was modelled on the walrus in our Natural History Gallery. Here, you can see how Coco copied the walrus' shape and size into paper form. 

If you would like to make your own origami walrus, you can watch the following video where Coco goes through the whole process. 

All you need is a square of coloured paper and some scissors. 

If you do manage to master the skill, share your masterpieces with us on social media using #horniman.

Specimen of the Month: House Fly (Musca domestica)

This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, takes a look at the crime scene investigators of the animal world.

Two Sides to the Coin

It will probably surprise you to hear that the house fly is critically endangered. Just checking you're paying attention… no it won’t surprise you to hear that the house fly is actually thought to be the most common animal on the planet. But don’t let that make you think they’re not special in their own way; humans are also (seemingly) everywhere and we all have at least a few of those we think are pretty great. The house fly may be numerous, and irritating at picnics, and yes, they can carry many disease-causing pathogens including typhoid, cholera, and leprosy, but they have many upsides too.

  • Specimen of the Month: House Fly (Musca domestica) , This housefly specimen on display in the Natural History Gallery is a model approximately 30 x life-size.
    This housefly specimen on display in the Natural History Gallery is a model approximately 30 x life-size.

The Scientist Fly

If CSI Miami was made into a cartoon with insect characters, it would seem reasonable for a mosquito to play a blood sucking lawyer. The house fly, on the other hand, would definitely be the cool-guy crime scene investigator. In the real world, the discipline of Forensic Entomology uses insects and the stages of their development to glean clues from fatal crime scenes that can aid legal investigations. If the body is found immediately after death, pathology-based methods are used. However, if the body isn’t found until a day or more later, insects are one of the most reliable indicators of many aspects of the crime.

The decomposition of a body can be split into five phases. Just in case you’re reading this over dinner, I shan’t use the precise medical terms, but they are as follows:

•    Could be sleeping (1-2 days)

•    Resembles a flotation device (2-6 days)

•    Nose peg required before approach (7-12 days)

•    Starting to become part of the environment (13-23 days)

•    Could be in a museum (24 days onwards)

Flies appear at a dead body very quickly. Some particularly well organised and highly motivated species detect the expiration and land within minutes. As different insects arrive at different stages (listed above), a forensic scientist can use a survey of the species present, and the point at which they are within their life cycle, to accurately establish how long ago the unfortunate person began sleeping with the fishes. In our insect cartoon, our humble house fly is never late to dinner. It likes to get there early in the event, and will land at the point the cadaver starts to resemble a flotation device. There is so much to talk about on this subject and it is extremely interesting, but I’m already going to run out of space so I shall leave it to you to investigate further.

  • Specimen of the Month: House Fly (Musca domestica) , Rather than including an image of flies on a cadaver, as would be appropriate for this point in the blog, I thought you would rather see our beautiful housefly robot from our current exhibition Robot Zoo. This fellow is 200 x life-size!
    Rather than including an image of flies on a cadaver, as would be appropriate for this point in the blog, I thought you would rather see our beautiful housefly robot from our current exhibition Robot Zoo. This fellow is 200 x life-size!

Flies or Armageddon

Entire ecosystems of wildlife live in urban areas because we produce so much rubbish. You just need a bank holiday to realise how much we rely on refuse collectors and their trash squishing trucks, when they haven’t been for a week it only takes a strong wind or a couple of foxes for the streets to look like Armageddon overnight.

Whilst bin boys and girls kindly collect our rubbish and hide it away where we can conveniently forget about how much food we ate over the weekend, it takes other much smaller members of the animal kingdom than humans to break it down. The housefly is amongst those that aid the decay of organic matter and with every fly that vomits onto the waste food in order to digest it, these insects elegantly ensure our food waste is re-harnessed by the natural circle of life. Thank you flies.




Bug Guide


(Muscidae) typically visit the remains during the bloated stage of decomposition (Joseph et al 2011).

PennState College of Agricultural Sciences


The Forensics Library


A source of arty inspiration

Our Engage Volunteer, Sam, tells us about how our collections have inspired her artwork. 

Even before becoming an Engage Volunteer I was inspired by the fantastic collections at the Horniman. 

The artefacts in what was the African Worlds Gallery have provided an especially rich source of material for my sketches and sculpture I’ve produced over the years.

Since becoming an Engage volunteer I can get up really close and personal with the actual objects themselves and I love to share my enthusiasm with the public too!

  • Project Morrinho at the Horniman , A colourful sketch of the Horniman Clocktower
    A colourful sketch of the Horniman Clocktower

My work mainly focuses on memory. Do objects have a memory? Do they provoke a memory of your own? Or do they serve as a collective memory for a group of people?

I often combine my own memories of travelling and the experiences I’ve had into my work and the materials I use.

  • Portal, Portal

I have always had a fascination with masks. I have collected and sketched them on my travels around Mexico and Africa. Beautiful, ugly, mysterious and powerful, they hook my imagination and keep drawing me back.

  • Sky Earth Kanaga Mask, Sky Earth Kanaga Mask
    Sky Earth Kanaga Mask

In River Memory Mask the wood itself forms the contours of the map of a face, with the river flowing through it linking the future to the past. The mirrored eye and stones with holes also ward off evil as seen in masks and amulets at the Horniman, like this African Nkisi, this Kurdish charm or this English protective charm. I’m spoilt for choice of inspiration!

  • River Memory Mask  , River Memory Mask
    River Memory Mask

The Anthropology blogs are a great way to find out about how the Anthropology Collections are being re-displayed. I can’t wait until the work is finished and the new World Gallery opens next year!

Have any of the objects at the Horniman sparked memories for you? 

Share your thoughts with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram using #horniman. 

Birds in the Horniman Gardens

Ornithological consultant and bird expert David Darrell-Lambert tells us what to expect at our annual Dawn Chorus Walk

  • Birds in the Horniman Gardens, Blackbird, David Darrell-Lambert
    Blackbird, David Darrell-Lambert

How long have you been leading the Horniman Dawn Chorus Walk?

My first one was seven years ago, seven years! I didn’t realise that it has been so long.

Are the Horniman Gardens a good place to hear the tweets of the dawn chorus?

The Horniman Gardens are an excellent place to hear the explosion that erupts as the dawn chorus starts. You have a nice mix of habitat there with the wooded section along the bottom of the hill, the open grass section in the middle and the gardens at the top. This means you get a nice variety of birds and not too many so you are bombarded, which can be daunting.

  • Birds in the Horniman Gardens, Stock Dove, David Darrell-Lambert
    Stock Dove, David Darrell-Lambert

What birds are you likely to hear?

A great variety, from Great Spotted Woodpeckers to Blackcaps to Goldfinches to Great Tit to Wrens – you can stand on the Nature Trail and hear two miniature Wrens trying to out-compete each other with their loud vocal skills. Once the early birds have finished then you get the second wave with species such as the Goldfinch jangling away from the various chestnut trees in the grounds.

What are the most distinctive bird tweets?

That would be either the Robin, which sings the beginning of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with long pauses between each burst, or the Great Tit, singing the mechanical Tea-cher, Tea-cher, Tea-cher.

  • Birds in the Horniman Gardens, Robin, David Darrell-Lambert
    Robin, David Darrell-Lambert

Do you have any good tips for bird watchers and listeners out there?

Don’t try to learn more than one or two every time you go out; you’ll just overload yourself. Join a guided walk and listen to the explanations as to how you can distinguish between the different bird song you can hear. If you don’t know what species is singing, try to find it or record it on your phone, then you can upload it to a website and ask people what it is.

What do you love about listening to the dawn chorus?

You never know what you will hear or how the birds will behave. Only last week, I heard a Wren giving an odd song/call – a rattle all on one note – that stumped me completely.

Book tickets for the Dawn Chorus Walk on 6 May or join David on Big Wednesday: Spring for a free tour.

Specimen of the Month: Greater Horseshoe Bat

This month, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls, takes a look at the greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum). 


You often hear people talk of the Latin name for an animal to refer to the Genus and Species, such as Homo sapien for a human. However, many of these scientific names actually stem from Greek. The scientific name for the genus of the greater horseshoe bat is Rhinolophus. Rhino comes from Greek, and means nose. Lophus is also Greek, and means crest. If you take a look at the greater horseshoe bat in the image below, you’ll see the logic behind a scientific name which means ‘nose crest’. Another example is the rhinoceros, which happens to be both the common name and the scientific name for the Genus. The name rhinoceros stems from Greek and means ‘nose horn’. It’s all very logical.

When referring to the Genus and Species of an animal, the correct term is the ‘binomial name’, which is Latin (not Greek) for ‘two names’. This worked perfectly until we realised evolution had ruined everything by proliferating beyond Genus and Species, at which point we had to introduce a third name for these ‘Subspecies’. When referring to a Subspecies, the correct term is trinomial, which is Latin for ‘three names’. Subspecies tend to occur when two populations of the same species are separated for a significant period of time by some geographical boundary, and subsequently evolve different traits, yet remain so closely related that they’re still considered to be the same species. The greater horseshoe bat has several subspecies (currently thought to be six), only one of which occurs in the UK: Rhinolophus ferrumequinum ferrumequinum.

Scientists, such as myself, are very fond of such semantics. However I’m sure not everyone reading this will be so… let’s move on.

  • Greater horseshoe bat, Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.
    Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.

Is that a moth I hear before me?

Whilst the binomial name for the greater horseshoe bat is very nice, the bat cares way more about its stomach, for which the nose crest comes in again. As with all Microchiropterans (Microbats), the greater horseshoe bat uses echolocation to find dinner. Echolocation is a system that does exactly what is says on the tin. A bat will emit a series of sounds from its voice box, which echo back when they hit an insect (or anything else), thus allowing the bat to locate it. The nose crest and impressive large satellite dish-esque ears evolved to make the bat extra proficient at picking up the sounds as they echo back in its direction. Beyond location, echolocation also lets the greater horseshoe bat know the size and shape of the object in front of it, meaning it knows, "moth - edible" and "brick wall - inedible".

  • Greater horseshoe bat, Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.
    Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.

Trophy wall

Bats are overachievers and as a group claim many wildlife records. An obvious one is that they are the only mammals in the world capable of powered flight. There are other contenders, or should I say pretenders, to the Flying Mammal Throne. The vast majority come from Southeast Asia where being a small gravity-bound mammal appears to be a dangerous past time. These mammals have accomplished gliding, or directional falling at a slow-pace, as it would be called if bats had written the text book rather than humans. The sugar glider hands-down wins Most Gorgeous Thing Ever*, however it is still just a furry glorified glider. The only other animals to have achieved powered flight are birds (crown group dinosaurs) and pterosaurs (not dinosaurs at all).

Having done my research for this blog I can tell you no one seems to know how many species of bat there are for certain; estimates range from 1100 to 1300. However whichever end of the scale it actually is, they still win the award for being the Largest Group of Mammals in the World. Not only that, bats make up around a fifth of the world’s mammal species. Some countries will have more non-bat-mammal species than 80% and others will have less, according to the habitats they have available. However the UK, in case you were wondering, is spot on with the world average, i.e. 1 in every 5 mammal species in the UK is a bat.

My personal favourite is that one of their number claims the title Smallest Mammal in the World. The bumblebee bat just about reaches 3 cm in total length and weighs only 2 grams. This means I put the equal weight of two bats in my tea every morning, which makes me think I should start using sweetner.

Incredibly, this entire species was unknown to science until it was first described and given a binomial name (Craseonycteris thonglongyai) in 1974. It is only known to exist in 43 caves, split between Myanmar and Thailand, which means disturbance from over excited wildlife tourists is a problem that local wildlife groups are having to constantly monitor.

  • Indian flying fox, The largest bats are called Megabats. These species, such as this Indian flying fox, have large eyes, small ears, and a fox-like face, making them look very different from the Microbats that echolocate.
    The largest bats are called Megabats. These species, such as this Indian flying fox, have large eyes, small ears, and a fox-like face, making them look very different from the Microbats that echolocate.

* Sadly the pet trade has cottoned on to this but I could write an enormous blog on why you should NOT own one in captivity.

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